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What Are Arne Duncan's 'Lines in the Sand' When it Comes to NCLB Renewal?

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan may have reshaped his rhetoric on testing—and applauded states and school districts for taking a hard look at the number of tests they require—but it appears he'd like to see annual state assessments remain at the core of any reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind. That's according to a trio of state chiefs—June Atkinson of North Carolina, Terry Holliday of Kentucky, and Lillian Lowery of Maryland who participated in a question-and-answer session with the secretary the Council of Chief State School Officers annual meeting in San Diego Thursday.

The chiefs say they're generally happy with waiver renewal guidance put forth by the administration last week, and feel the administration listened to their feedback on the need for things like a streamlined waiver renewal option for some states. Indeed, the guidance doesn't seem to include significant new strings for states, who are already knee-deep in implementing new teacher evaluations, standards, and tests.

But CCSSO would still vastly prefer a full-fledged NCLB reauthorization. During a question and answer session, the chiefs asked Duncan what his top priorities (aka "lines in the sand") are when it comes to that legislation.

It's a fair question. The chiefs didn't say this, but Duncan has been seen as a major blocking point on reauthorization. And bills introduced by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who is likely to take the helm of the Senate K-12 panel in January, don't reflect the administration's priorities on things like school turnarounds and teacher evaluation—in fact the White House threatened to veto Kline's bill.

Duncan told the chiefs he would really like to retain annual state assessments for accountability, Holliday said. That's important because some states would like to try out a slightly different testing schedule, particularly New Hampshire, which is proposing a pilot project that would allow a small handful of districts to use "competency-based" tests developed by both the state and local officials in certain grade spans, while retaining state tests in other academic years.

Holliday, who is also interested in pursuing competency based assessments in his state, said he "did not sense today" that Duncan would be open to major changes on testing. "We asked him today what his lines in the sand were. Annual assessment seemed to be one of those lines."

Still, it sounds like some states are in doing some deep thinking on the best path forward on accountability and assessments, even as they continue to implement their NCLB waivers.

Lowery put it this way: "Most of the states that are engaged in this work have multiple indicators [of student achievement]. I think the question becomes how do we use the state assessments? How do we actually use the state assessments to integrate that with other kinds of indicators?"

And Atkinson said her state would ideally like to rework parts of it assessment system, to use technology to better capture student performance over time. 

Duncan also told the chiefs that he wanted the reauthoirzaiton to help ensure that states "look out for all students, not just some students," Atkinson said. "We do recognize and acknowledge that we do have achievement gaps."

And Lowery said Duncan seemed open to discussion, overall. "Even the lines in the sand were not lines in cement. He seemed very flexible, willing to listen," she said. 

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